PALM HARBOR — "This is reading," the principal said as she opened the door to a classroom where every child looked up from a laptop.
It was Thursday at Palm Harbor Middle School, the tail end of the third full week of summer. In any other year, they might be playing video games after nine months of school, but these kids were indeed reading. A computer program had tailored stories to each student's skill level.
Next door, a class played a computer game that involved "sliming" each other and solving math problems to remove said slime. Down the hall, 12 soon-to-be seventh-graders blew bubbles at a dry-ice mixture for a lesson on states of matter.
"Who's a good bubble blower?" teacher Ed Shay asked the students, who replied by lifting themselves out of their seats as they shook their hands in the air and said, "Oooh! Ooh! Me, me!"
Struggling students in Pinellas County are getting an extra helping of reading, math and science this summer. If the program succeeds, they might actually think it's fun.
Summer Bridge is superintendent Michael Grego's boldest initiative so far, and is intended to tackle one of the county's biggest problems, the achievement gap. The price tag is estimated at $3.9 million.
The program is based on research that shows students in poverty fall behind over the summer. The gap grows wider as one summer turns into two, into three. By high school, it's hard to catch up.
To fill seats, Grego went after 10,000 to 12,000 students, all with lower scores on the FCAT or other assessments. The six-week program drew more than 6,600 registered students in its first year, far above what district officials predicted in February when they launched Summer Bridge on the premise that it should look a little like camp if it was going to keep kids in seats.
Grego said he would have been ecstatic to see 1,000 to 2,000 students show.
"We're going to build on this," he said. "I think it's the answer to year-round school in a very focused way."
In his first year as superintendent, Grego has pushed for high-need students to spend more time in class. He threw together Summer Bridge in a few months and created Promise Time, which will add an extra hour or more of instruction to the regular school day in 28 schools this coming year. Both programs are voluntary, although Grego doesn't like to advertise that.
"Because your child's current level of reading and math performance are below grade level expectations, it is imperative that your child attend the middle school Summer Bridge program," reads a letter that went home recently to some Osceola Fundamental Middle School parents.
Grego told the School Board this week that his message to students is clear: "This is important. They need to be there."
Felita Grant Lott, principal of Bay Point Elementary, said her staff aggressively recruited students to the four-day-a-week program. When some registered but didn't turn up, they called each family to find out why. Those calls haven't stopped, she said.
Absences have been a problem in Summer Bridge's inaugural year, particularly at schools where students need help the most. At D-rated Campbell Park Elementary, for instance, nearly half of the 275 students who signed up didn't show on the first day. At F-rated Melrose Elementary, more students were gone the first day than present. That trend reversed on the second day, when 131 students showed up and 76 were absent.
Grego said absences were to be expected. To help parents get their kids to Summer Bridge, students were, in some cases, allowed to attend a more conveniently located school than they do during the year. Transportation was provided in a few areas, though not in most.
Victoria Hawkins, principal at Palm Harbor Middle, said she expects enrollment to bump up as students finish up "traditional" summer school and filter into Summer Bridge. Teachers acknowledged that some students' families were on vacation.
To judge the success of Summer Bridge, students will take tests at the end of the program. Administrators will compare those with the results of a "pre-test" given to the children earlier this month.
Students and teachers were optimistic the extra few weeks of school would polish their academic skills.
Patricia Lang, a Tarpon Springs teacher working at Palm Harbor this summer, congratulated a rising sixth-grader who earned an 88 on his reading test. A boy sitting nearby declared that he, too, had earned an 88 on the laptop quiz.
"Some of these students have never gotten an 88 before," Lang said. "But they're getting 88s, and they're getting 100s, and they're excited about that."
A shy 12-year-old named Angel Suarez, who will attend Carwise Middle School next year and admits he prefers math over reading, declared, "I want to step up for sixth grade."
Deanna DiLeonardo, a 13-year-old who will be an eighth-grader at Palm Harbor, decided to attend Summer Bridge after failing her math FCAT.
"The normal school year was kind of bland, and you could add fun," she said, taking a break from sliming her fellow students. "But this is fun."
Cara Fitzpatrick can be reached at (727) 893-8846 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Fitz_ly. Lisa Gartner can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @lisagartner.